So You’ve Just Heard of Keywords

Posted on Sunday, July 27th, 2014 No Comments


So you've just heard of keywords

When it comes to keywords, the general population is about ten years behind the times. Sometimes when a new client calls me, she has just heard of keywords and is under the impression that they are a magical milkshake that will bring all the business to her yard. Other clients are more knowledgeable about SEO but still think it works the same way it did in 2004. And it’s understandable. It seems like there’s a new SEO shakeup every week, so if it hasn’t been your full time job for the last decade, you probably won’t be up to speed. Even in 2004 it was important to carefully manage client expectations about SEO, and nowadays, I’m bursting people’s bubbles when I tell them that putting keywords into their website won’t do what they thought it would.

Keywords are important but they are just one cog in the large machine of SEO and online marketing. I put together this blog post to bring you up to date with the basics of “the new SEO,” especially what you can expect with keywords. This information is based on my experience since 2000, when I started professionally working on websites, and like with everything, your mileage may vary.

Search Engines: A Very Brief History

When the internet first started to become a household thing, around 1996-1999 during the Dot-Com era, search engines were terrible. You would search for something and get results that were nothing about what you typed. This was partially because search engines weren’t very good, and partially because people were already scamming the system. They would try to get more traffic by loading up their website with keywords that were not related to the site at all.

Then Google came along. They wanted to be better than the crappy search engines. They wanted to create a search engine that actually worked, and they did. Google very quickly became the world’s default search engine because it worked like a search engine was supposed to. It became such the standard way of searching for something that people started to use “Google” as a verb.

Google Is Always Changing

Google quickly put a stop the practice of using unrelated keywords on websites. After 2003 and into 2004, everyone learned the new SEO best practices to avoid penalties from Google. 2004-2011 was the time period when keywords worked easily, as long as you did it right.

I was able to put a website in the top 10 of Google’s search results many times simply by peppering a single page with a specific keyword phrase. The keyword just had to be put in the title tag, the meta keywords, the meta description, an H1 tag, an image alt, and throughout the text of the page a few times. That was pretty much the extent of SEO, along with keeping your website updated on a regular basis and free of glaring technical errors.

And then Google started releasing updates to their search algorithm, always trying to keep ahead of the spammers and “black hat” SEO practices. This blog post from HubSpot has a great outline of Google’s major algorithm changes. For the most part, Google is just trying to give users the best search results possible, but there is one issue that I find very unfair. From that article:

Should big brands get preferential treatment in Google’s search rankings? That question was central to a debate that began raging in early 2009, when SEO specialists started reporting a major update (Vince) that seemed to favor big brands.

For example, after the Vince update was rolled out, began ranking for the term “gifts,” began ranking for the term “electronics,” and the list goes on.

The Vince update is one that really bothers me. It gives preferential treatment to big brands. I hate this because since they’re already well known, they don’t need to rely on organic search results like a small business does. In my earlier post about the Panda and Penguin updates, I talked about how this, in conjunction with those two updates, effectively ruined SEO for small companies.

The Panda Update

In my experience, the Panda algorithm change caused the biggest problems, especially for the honest, hardworking owners of ecommerce sites.

Panda was an update that Google released with the intent of penalizing content farms and other sites with “thin” and duplicate content. During the few years before this, it had become very popular to create a lot of quick content that could be used for keyword placement and backlinks. For example, people submitted short articles to aggregators that would allow others to copy those articles onto their own websites. The original author would get a link back to his website, and other site owners could use the article as content for their own site. Google didn’t like all of this crappy content that was 1. not very informative and 2. duplicated across a bunch of different websites.

There was a HUGE problem with this. I don’t know if it was Google’s intention or if they didn’t realize what would happen, but the Panda update unfairly penalized ecommerce sites. Imagine that you have a website that sells a specific type of product, such as camera equipment. You would get all of the product descriptions and images from the product distributor. That means you have the same exact content as any other website that sells those products. With the Panda update, Google looks at that and considers it duplicate content, and penalizes the site for it. It’s not stolen, scraped, or bad content in any way. It just happens to be shown elsewhere online.

After Panda came the Penguin update, which scrutinized link networks and anchor text (the words in the actual link). It tried to penalize spammy linking practices, usually the kind of stuff you’d get if you paid a company in India $20 to create 500 backlinks for you. But again, it also penalized people who were just trying to do their best. Between Penguin and Panda, the old style of SEO was gone.

“The New SEO”

What used to be accomplished with keyword placement is now accomplished (maybe, if you do it right) with a combination of keywords, social media, content marketing, design, technical SEO, and paid advertising.  Keywords and onsite SEO are the foundation to give you any hope of ranking, but it’s nowhere near enough for Google to consider you a serious contender. Nowadays, before Google will rank your site, it wants you to already be a solid brand. It wants to see that a lot of other websites link to you (and that had better be in a “natural” way.) It also wants your content to be totally unique and interesting — so unique that it doesn’t look like anyone else’s content, otherwise you might be a spammer. In addition, there are so many websites online now that every keyword niche is overrun with competitors.

Now What?

Keyword SEO is just one part of online marketing, and online marketing is pretty much the same as offline marketing, except for the fact that it’s done online. There are many ways to increase your traffic and conversions once you have some traffic to work with, but until then, any online business has to be treated like any offline business. Awareness has to be grown via methods like outreach (with social media and online forums replacing networking events), advertising (Google Adwords replacing newspapers or direct marketing), and original content creation (like blogging) to develop authority in your field.

So the old keyword system just doesn’t do anything anymore. Keywords must be in place as a base to work from, but it doesn’t really accomplish anything on its own. Instead, websites have to grow like any other company, through social outreach, advertising, and by creating educational content that others might enjoy and link to. The big difference between 2004 and 2014 is that keywords no longer bring you free traffic.

Here are a couple related infographics!

Google Algorithm Changes Infographic

The Road to Modern Marketing

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